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Books Set in the 1880s and 1890s

If you’re joining us for our 2024 Decades Reading Challenge, welcome! If you simply found your way to our website looking for books set in the late 1800s, you’ve still come to the right place!

What Kind of Books Are Included On This List?

Our recommended reading list includes historical fiction books that examine social and economic issues and nonfiction books that provide insights into the late 1800s. We’ve also recommended a couple of popular books written during the era and that have stood the test of time.

Between 1880 and 1900, a period known as “the Gilded Age,” the United States experienced rapid growth – both in population and industry. There was an influx of millions of European immigrants, who were greeted upon arrival by the Statue of Liberty. There was also a great migration of people from rural parts of the US to cities during this period. Additionally, the newly completed transcontinental railroad continued to move both people and goods to previously sparsely populated areas in the “Wild West.”

Westward expansion by white settlers had devastating effects on Native American cultures. The settlers pushed Indian tribes off of the lands that they had occupied for many thousands of years, and resistance by the tribes often led to wars with the US military. Governmental assimilation tactics included kidnapping and enrolling Indian children in boarding schools, punishing the use of Native languages, and creating dependence on food rations. 

For additional historical context, be sure to check out the timeline of major world events that we’ve included at the end of the post.

Books Set in the Late 1800s (1880-1899)

The Last Days of Night book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

In 1888 New York, the streets were still lit by gas lamps, but the promise of the light bulb looms. However, the switch to electric light came with an additional complication – both George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison claimed to have invented the lightbulb.

A young lawyer, Paul Cravath, is thrust into the world of New York high society when he agrees to defend Westinghouse in a lawsuit brought by Thomas Edison. Edison has spies and vast resources, including the backing of J.P. Morgan. How can they fight against such a force?

When Paul meets Nikola Tesla, he may have found the secret to defeating Edison. But winning requires risks.

The Book Girls Say…

The Last Days of Night was a Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction in 2016.

Also Featured on These Book Lists:

Gilded Age Books

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

95% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Sara was the head housekeeper at a posh London hotel in 1884. Based on her background, this is more than she ever expected and the highest station she could rise to in life. But then she meets American Theodore Camden. He is building the most luxurious residential building in New York, The Dakota, and invites her to come to manage the property. The job brings her to highs and lows she never could have expected.

Sara’s story is told in conjunction with a 1985 storyline of Bailey Camden, who is returning from rehab and gets the opportunity to start fresh with a job overseeing a renovation of an apartment in The Dakota.

The novel goes back and forth between these perspectives, weaving together a story of love, betrayal, and the quest for success within one of NYC’s most famous residences.

The Book Girls Say…

This book is perfect for fans of dual-timeline historical fiction novels. The Dakota is still standing, and it’s located at the corner of Central Park West and 72nd Street, directly across the street from Central Park. It was once home to John Lennon, who was murdered right outside the building gates in 1980, and it remains home to Yoko Ono. This building, dubbed New York’s most famous apartment building by Architectural Digest, has also been home to many other celebrities over the years.

All the Pretty Places book cover

Book Summary

Sadie’s family owns a nursery that has supplied the top landscape architects on the East Coast for decades. But in 1893, as the economy plummets into a depression, Sadie’s father begins pressuring her to marry for wealth and stability. Sadie has other ideas for her future. She pursues new business from her father’s wealthiest clients of the Gilded Age in an attempt to save the family nursery.

The more time she spends in the mansions and secluded gardens of the elite, the more she sees the disparity of those struggling with poverty and starvation. She finds a new passion in her desire to bring natural beauty to those who can’t afford private gardens. Along the way, Sadie is also reunited with a former employee and former love, Sam.

The Book Girls Say…

Author Joy Callaway wrote this novel about the life of her great-great-grandmother.

Also Featured on These Book Lists:

Gilded Age Books

Destiny of the Republic book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Less than four months after taking office, US President Garfield was shot twice in a train station in Washington, DC by a disgruntled man with political aspirations. Doctors tried to save his life, but life-saving attempts led to infections as his surgeon, Dr. Bliss, didn’t believe in sanitizing hands or equipment.

A bullet remained lodged in his body, but it needed to be removed for the best chance of survival. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell thought he could develop new technology to locate the bullet, but it was a race against time and against a doctor who didn’t embrace evolving medical practices.

The Book Girls Say…

Melissa’s husband originally recommended this book to us after rating it five stars. He said rather than reading like standard non-fiction, it reads like a movie or modern thriller as you see multiple storylines of Garfield, his assassin, his doctor, and Alexander Graham Bell as he raced to save the President.

Book Cover for The Children's Blizzard showing two young children peering through a snowy window

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

96% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Based on an actual event and oral history from the survivors, The Children’s Blizzard takes us to the 1888 Great Plains. Just before school was let out for the day, an unexpected and extreme blizzard overtook the Dakota Territory. That morning, it had been warm enough that most went to school without their coats.

Schoolteachers, often as young as 16, had the children’s lives in their hands and were forced to make life-altering decisions. Two of the teachers, sisters Raina and Gerda, came out of the storm with very different outcomes. One was a hero, and one was ostracized. The book tells their stories, along with the story of a young servant girl and her miraculous survival.

The Book Girls Say…

We had nearly 100 of our readers select this book for the Decades Reading Challenge earlier this year. Common themes among the reviews were how well-researched and descriptive this novel is and that it is heartbreaking yet hopeful.

A Well Behaved Woman book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

97% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Alva Smith had a decent society name, but her family had lost all of their money. When she married into the newly rich, but socially scorned Vanderbilt family, she knew only half her problems were solved. She had more money than she could ever spend again, but her new last name was not respected in the city.

When the Academy of Music denied her a box, she founded The Met to prove she wouldn’t handle rejection quietly. But how much can she work around the strict rules of New York society? And will there be consequences for pushing the boundaries?

The Book Girls Say…

If you enjoyed the HBO series, The Gilded Age, you might recognize aspects of the storyline as the show, and this book both draw from New York society history. For continued reading on the Vanderbilt family, consider the non-fiction title Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper, the son of Gloria Vanderbilt.

Kindle Unlimited as of: 11/21/2023

Also Featured on These Book Lists:

Gilded Age Books

Two Wars and a Wedding book cover

Book Summary

In September of 1896, Betsy is an aspiring archaeologist. The Smith College graduate travels to Athens in hopes of breaking into the male-dominated field of excavation. When war breaks out between Greece and Turkey, however, Betsy enters the conflict as a nurse. This decision causes a painful rift with her oldest friend, Ava.

Two years later, Betsy has sworn off war nursing. But when she receives word that Ava is heading to Cuba to help Clara Barton and the Red Cross to care for the wounded in the Spanish-American War, Betsy is determined to stop Ava, and the only way she can do it is by taking Ava’s place. She follows Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders straight to the heart of the battle.

The Nurse's Secret book cover

Book Summary

This historical fiction novel is based on the little-known story of America’s first nursing school. While nurses had historically been viewed as unskilled, New York’s Bellevue Hospital training school for nurses is the first of its kind. It’s formed around Florence Nightingale’s nursing principles of discipline, intellect, and moral character. Only young women of good breeding are accepted in Bellevue’s nurse training program.

Una is a young female grifter who evades the police by conning her way into the nurse training program. She struggles to fit in with her prim classmates and balks at the doctors’ endless commands. On the other hand, life on the streets prepared her for the horrors of injury and disease, allowing her to slowly find her footing in the program. When Una becomes suspicious about a patient’s death, she risks exposing the truth about her background.

The Book Girls Say…

This novel is from the author of The Second Life of Mirielle West, which made Melissa’s list of the best books she read in 2022.

Kindle Unlimited as of: 11/21/2023
Whiskey When We're Dry book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

If you’re looking for a western with a twist, Whiskey When We’re Dry fits the bill! The main character, Jessilyn, is an orphaned 17-year-old girl trying to survive alone on her family’s homestead. In order to get food and stay safe from predatory neighbors, she disguises herself as a boy and sets off on her horse to find her outlaw brother in the mountains.

However, the governor’s militia is also trying to find Noah, dead or alive.

The Book Girls Say…

Readers say this book is both literary and descriptively violent at times, so keep that in mind before selecting it.

The Secret Life of Sunflowers book cover

Book Summary

This historical fiction novel is based on the true story of Johanna Bonger, Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law.

Johanna was a 28-year-old widow with a baby living in Paris when she inherited Van Gogh’s paintings. They weren’t worth anything at the time, but despite barely speaking French, she managed to introduce Van Gogh’s legacy to the world.

Hollywood auctioneer Emsley comes across an old diary while cleaning out her famous grandmother’s New York brownstone. But it turns out that the diary didn’t belong to her grandma. It was written by Johanna, and it provides Emsley with the inspiration she needs at just the right time.

The Book Girls Say…

Reviewers say this book is a real page-turner that you’ll be so emotionally invested that you won’t be able to put it down until the stories of Johanna and Emsley finally come together.

If you are interested in learning more about the life of Vincent van Gogh, you may also like Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman. This meticulously researched non-fiction tells of the deep friendship between artist Vincent Van Gogh and his brother, Theo, throughout the 1870s and 1880s.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

It’s 1885, and newly married Colonel Allen Forrester has received the commission of a lifetime. He is being sent to lead a small group of men to navigate Alaska’s Wolverine River (a fictional river based on the Copper River). Finding a way to pass the river is the key to opening Alaska to the outside world, but previous attempts have been fatal.

Sophie is pregnant and not excited about being relegated to a year in the military barracks away from her husband while he attempts the impossible. She’s worried about her pregnancy and what will happen while apart from Allen.

The Book Girls Say…

Melissa loved this author’s descriptions of Alaska in The Snow Child, so she can’t wait to pick up this 2016 Goodreads Nominee for Best Historical Fiction. Like The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey weaves a thread of magical realism throughout this epistolary novel.

Devil in the White City book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

96% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

This book alternates the true stories of two men connected to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Daniel H. Burnham is the architect of the fair, responsible for constructing the famous “White City,” which attracted appearances by Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison.

Dr. Holmes erected the World’s Fair Hotel near the fairgrounds with a gas chamber and crematorium. He lured both guests and victims to his hotel with his charismatic personality.

The Book Girls Say…

While Erik Larson’s books are written in a narrative style, they are still classified as non-fiction. This one is more true crime/horror than some of his other works, as a serial killer is involved. While it still has high reviews overall, many readers comment that it feels like two different books combined into one, with the history of the fair and the sinister Dr. Holmes sections feeling disconnected despite being told in alternating chapters.

Four Treasures of the Sky book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Daiyu was named after a tragic heroine in Chinese folklore and hoped to avoid being cursed like her namesake. However, she’s kidnapped in China at the young age of 11 to be sent to an American brothel.

While she’s able to escape the brothel, she can’t hide from the white men who are following the Chinese population as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 fuels anti-Asian sentiment. She’s lucky to find a safe home with Chinese shopkeepers in Idaho, but life is anything but easy in a country that hates you.

The Book Girls Say…

The author wrote this beautiful work of literary historical fiction after her father found a historical marker in Idaho and asked her to share the story with the world. Be sure to read the author’s notes at the end of the book for more information on the true events that inspired the story.

This is an emotionally challenging read that addresses some difficult topics and includes depictions of sexual assault and racially motivated violence.

Sherlock Holmes Ultimate Collection book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

This collection contains all four novels and all 56 short stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about master detective Sherlock Holmes.

These stories are easy to read in any order. If you’d like to read a full novel, we recommend The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is set in 1889. If you’d rather just read a few short stories, consider The Adventure of the Speckled Band, set in 1886, or The Red-Headed League, set in 1890.

No matter what you choose, the sleuthing adventures of Detective Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson will transport you to the Victorian era in England.

Kindle Unlimited as of: 11/21/2023
The Downstairs Girl book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

92% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Set in the American South of the 1890s, this YA social drama tells the story of 17-year-old Jo Kaun. By day, she works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the richest men in Atlanta, Georgia, but by night, she is the author of a newspaper advice column for genteel Southern ladies.

Writing under the pseudonym “Dear Miss Sweetie,” she uses her popular column to address some of society’s ills. But when she dares to challenge ideas of race and gender, she is unprepared for the backlash she faces. Jo Kaun struggles to keep her identity a secret while also searching out the truth about her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby.

The Five book cover

Book Summary

In 1888, Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane became famous for the same thing, despite never meeting. These five women were killed by Jack the Ripper.

While most writing about Jack the Ripper digs into his history and murders, this non-fiction title explores the lives of his victims. Through their stories, you get a comprehensive feel for how the poor working class lived in late Victorian England. As many of the women were homeless with mental health struggles and/or alcohol dependencies, the book also explores these topics.

The Book Girls Say…

The Five was the 2019 Goodreads Choice Winner for Best History & Biography. While many books about Jack the Ripper are filled with gore, it’s not the focus of this book.

The Mad Girls of New York book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

98% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

This historical mystery is based on the real life of journalist Nellie Bly. While she currently works for the ladies’ pages, she has greater ambition. However, the editors believe women are too emotional and delicate to be real journalists.

Eventually, she gets her big break. Rumors about the conditions and circumstances inside Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women are terrifying. But no one can get inside. The New York World publication had an idea…what if a woman feigns insanity to get committed and find out the truth?

What Nellie finds is more horrible than she expected. The investigation could make her career and make a difference to the women of Blackwell’s Island. But can she get out to tell her story before rival reporters scoop it up?

The Book Girls Say…

If you’ve read The Address by Fiona Davis, you may recognize Nellie’s name.

The Island of Worthy Boys book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Life in late nineteenth-century Boston is tough, and Aiden and Charles struggle each day to earn enough money to feed themselves (and in Aiden’s case, also his mother and sister). The two adolescent boys survive the wicked Boston streets by forming an alliance. Together, they rob drunken sailors in the brothel district, but things go wrong one night. They accidentally kill their target.

To avoid arrest, the boys flee the city and con their way into the Boston Farm School. In 1889, this school only accepted boys with squeaky-clean pasts (certainly not those with criminal records), which made it the perfect hiding place for Aiden and Charles. But soon, they struggle to keep their stories straight. The pressure damages their friendship and puts their futures at risk.

Also Featured on These Book Lists:

Books with a Child Protagonist (Bildungsroman Novels)

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

When Grace gets a job at William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper in Gilded Age NYC in 1896, she’s caught in a feud between Hearst and another newspaper tycoon, Joseph Pulitzer. She knows landing the right scoop could make her career.

In Cuba, 18-year-old Evangelina Cisneros dreams of a Cuba free from Spanish oppression. When she’s unjustly imprisoned in a notorious Havana women’s jail, Hearst puts her on the front page and calls her “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba,” which becomes a rallying cry for American intervention in Cuba’s battle for independence.

Hearst’s staff, including Grace and a courier named Marina, who is secretly working for Cuban revolutionaries, attempt to free Evangelia. But the story becomes much more significant when the explosion of the USS Maine sends the US and Spain closer to war.

The Book Girls Say…

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba reads as a stand-alone book, but is book 4 in the Perez Family series. The novel is based on the true story of Evangelina Cisneros, who changed the course of history.

Also Featured on These Book Lists:

Gilded Age Books

The Cartographer's Secret book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Evie Ludgrove’s father was obsessed with famous Australian explorer Dr. Ludwig Leichhardt. From her father, Evie adopted a love of charting the landscape. When a magazine offers a large reward for proof of what happened to Dr. Leichhardt when he disappeared, she sets out to use her father’s papers to discover the secret. But in the course of trying to prove her theory, Evie disappears without a trace.

Thirty years later, when Letitia Rawlings visits her great aunt Olivia and discovers Evie’s beautifully hand-illustrated map, she sets out to discover the truth about her missing aunt Evie. This historical fiction, which features one of Australia’s great mysteries, is recommended for fans of Kate Morton.

At the Mountains Edge book cover

Book Summary

The Peterson family, including Lisa, have a store in Vancouver, but then an opportunity arises to make a fortune if they move to Dawson City, the only established town in the Yukon. Constable Ben Turner, a new recruit for the North-West Mounted Police, is also headed to Dawson City, but instead of looking for riches, he is looking to bring integrity to a town overrun with guns, liquor, prostitutes, and thieves.

The journey over icy mountains and whitewater rapids is more treacherous than Liza or Ben imagined. When a tragedy strikes near the mountain’s peak, Lisa must continue without her family. Ben is wracked with guilt over the accident and looking for an opportunity to make things right.

The Book Girls Say…

This historical fiction is a mix of romance and adventure, perfect for those who enjoy survival stories.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

90% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

After making a name for herself as a crusading young reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, Nellie Bly was determined to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. She set out on November 14, 1889, on a steamship from New York.

But she had competition. Also setting out from New York that day was a young journalist from Cosmopolitan magazine named Elizabeth Bisland. However, she was on a train heading west instead of a ship heading east.

This wasn’t the only way the two women were total opposites. Nelly was a scrappy reporter raised in Pennsylvania coal country. She used her work to expose social injustice. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was a genteel young woman from an aristocratic Southern family.

This non-fiction account of the journeys of these two trailblazing women reads like a great adventure novel.

The Book Girls Say…

If you’ve read Fiona Davis’ The Address (a favorite of ours), then you’ll remember the fictionalized account of Nellie Bly from that novel. She’s the journalist who went undercover at the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.

Also Featured on These Book Lists:

Books Set on a Form of Transportation

You are welcome to choose any book that you’d like to read for the challenge, but we hope that this list of books has given you a good starting point.

Printable Book Lists

Readers who support The Book Girls’ Guide through our Buy Me a Coffee (BMAC) membership site have access to two different printable versions of this book list.

New for 2024, members can print a single page containing all the book titles from each guided challenge list. We will also continue providing the journal page format, which has space to indicate your interest level in each book, jot down notes, and rate the books once you have read them.

Printable pages showing book titles

Our BMAC members (we call them our BFFs) help cover the cost of running the challenges so we can keep them free for everyone. You can read more about why our members are essential and learn about the perks of membership.

Sign Up for the Decades Challenge

Sign up for our email list below to receive a free printable tracker for the Decades Challenge. Our weekly email newsletter helps you stay on track with friendly reminders while still allowing you the flexibility to read at your own pace. Additionally, challenge participants have an opportunity to discuss the books on this list and to provide ratings and reviews via our book logs.

Bonus Content – Timeline of Major Events of the 1880s and 1890s

We compiled this list of major events of the late 19th century to provide some historical context for your reading. We hope you enjoy learning a bit more about this period in history.

  • Ten thousand workers held a labor march in NYC on September 5, 1882, in what became the first commemoration of Labor Day. The US Congress officially designated the first Monday of September as a legal holiday, Labor Day, in 1894.
  • More than a decade after construction began, the Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 24, 1883.
  • In June of 1886, President Grover Cleveland wedded Frances Folson. He remains the only President to be married inside the White House. Cleveland lost his bid for reelection in 1888, but was then elected again in 1892. He is the only president to have served two non-consecutive terms.
  • The disassembled Statue of Liberty arrived in New York aboard a French freighter in June of 1885. The completed statue was dedicated in New York Harbor in October of 1886.
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle debuted his literary detective, Sherlock Holmes, in 1887. Doyle went on to write four novels and 56 short stories about Sherlock Holmes. The stories are mostly set in the late 1880s and 1890s, a period of great change in England.
  • Jack the Ripper’s first victim was discovered in London in August of 1888. He murdered at least four more victims in the impoverished neighborhoods of London’s East End in the following months.
  • Star reporter Nellie Bly set out on a 72-day race around the world in November of 1889. She wanted to circumnavigate the globe in less than 80 days in order to beat the record of Phileas Fogg, the fictional protagonist of “Around the World in Eighty Days.” She succeeded, wrapping up her adventure with a cross-country train trip from San Francisco to NYC.
  • Major industries such as banking, railroads, shipping, steel, and oil were largely controlled by monopolies. This resulted in public outcry over price fixing. The Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in 1890 to give the federal government the power to break up monopolistic business practices and restore competition. Nonetheless, monopolies continued to play a major role in US industry for decades to come.
  • Expansion of the West occurred so rapidly at the end of the 19th century that in 1890, the US Census Bureau officially declared the “closing of the frontier.” This indicated that there appeared to be no remaining tracts of land without settlers.
  • The Wounded Knee Massacre took place in South Dakota in December of 1890 when U.S. Cavalry troopers fired on Lakota people who had gathered. They killed hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children. This massacre essentially marked the end of Native American resistance to white rule in the West.
  • Carnegie Hall opened in New York City in May of 1891.
  • Andrew Borden and his wife were murdered in Massachusetts in August of 1892. His daughter Lizzie Borden was accused of the gruesome crime but was later acquitted in June of 1893.
  • Chicago was selected to host the 1893 World’s Fair. The fair debuted the first Ferris Wheel, a 264-foot-tall engineering marvel.
  • A decline in the New York stock market triggered the Panic of 1893, which led to a major economic depression.
  • Pierre de Coubertin created the International Olympic Committee, leading to the first modern Olympic games in Athens, Greece, two years later.
  • Alfred Nobel died in 1896, and his will arranged for his estate to fund the Nobel Prize.
  • In July 1897, the Klondike Gold Rush began in Alaska.
  • The American battleship U.S.S. Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, in February of 1898. This mysterious event led to the United States going to war with Spain. The Spanish-American War lasted from April to August of 1898.
  • In July of 1899, the Newsboys in New York City went on strike for several weeks. This was a significant action related to child labor.

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The Book Girls are best friends who jointly read over 200 books per year. We started Book Girls' Guide in 2019 to help others de-stress and find joy through the power of a great book. We do in-depth research on thousands of novels and non-fiction titles each year to provide curated book lists covering a variety of genres.

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Tuesday 2nd of January 2024

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